A History of Book Club Addictions

I am a fond of book clubs: the traditional book groups that meet in people’s homes, book clubs at bookstores, library book groups, mail-order book clubs, TV book clubs, and the online book clubs.

Book clubs have been around for a surprisingly long time. The popular mail-order Book-of-the-Month Club was founded in 1926, followed by two other mail-order giants, The Literary Guild (1927) and Quality Paperback Books (1974). The Great Books Movement began at the University of Chicago in 1946 (I can’t recommend it: I was bored to death by Junior Great Books, whose canon included Aesop’s Fables and The Jungle Books, while the library had superior classics by Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett; but the group was dissolved anyway after the leaders discovered none of us had read Treasure Island). The influential Oprah Book Club, with the power to make best-sellers overnight, was founded in 1996 and suddenly everyone was in a book group. Beginning in the ’90s, books were discussed on books boards at AOL and Yahoo groups. Now Goodreads seems to dominate the internet, but there are too many book clubs on social media to count.

This woman obviously belongs to a book club.

I belong to several book clubs, and am especially fond of face-to-face groups. My favorite was the one I ran, naturally. I telephoned everyone beforehand to remind them of the meeting, and, they all showed up. Did I have a schoolmarm effect, or was I just endearingly enthusiastic? Well, we did have fun. Everybody in that book club loved to read.

Since the late ’90’s, there has been a proliferation of books and novels about book clubs, among them The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood, Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer, The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. One wonders: did the insanely popular Oprah Book Club and other TV book clubs inspire the many books about book clubs? There have always been books about reading, but the book club novel is a relatively recent genre (I think).

Short stories celebrate the eccentricity of the institution of book clubs. I chortled over Edith Wharton’s brilliant, funny short story, “Xingu,”about a small group of snobbish women who meet monthly to discuss books and culture. Wharton writes of the organizer: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had founded the Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several other indomitable huntresses of erudition.”

(Do I see a little of myself in Mrs. Ballinger? Well, perhaps a tiny bit.)

And then the Lunch Club decides to entertain a writer. As they await the arrival of Ostric Dane, who is the author of the intellectual novel, The Wings of Death (an allusion to Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove?), they are apprehensive about what to discuss at lunch, and also concerned about the flightiness of their new member, Mrs. Roby,who admits that she has not read Dane’s book.

She had meant, she said, to glance through the book, but she had been so absorbed in a novel of Trollope’s that–

“No one reads Trollope now.”

Mrs. Roby looked pained. “I’m only just beginning,” she confessed.

Mrs. Roby immediately becomes our favorite character.

Although I participate in many book clubs, I do wish I could visit a salon. I long to attend the “third-rate salon” of Mme de Villeparisis in Proust’s The Guermantes Way, or at least to crash a party at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s country house.

But I suspect the salon is more entertaining in literature than in life. M, the narrator of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, does not seem to have much fun at salons.

Where are the salons during a pandemic?